The last few weeks, we’ve been looking in-depth about how to insert tension into every scene, because without it, the scene falls flat. We’ve looked at tension in dialogue, in exposition, action, hyping up low-tension scenes, and today, we’ll look at creating tension where there is none.
Creating Tension Where There is None
Certain passages of text in a novel don’t lend themselves to tension. Generally, descriptive material is one of them. How would we add tension? By working backwards, make plain the conflicts of the observer, or POV character. How does that character feel about what they’re describing? Negative feelings of any kind will help to build tension in the description. Click to Tweet
So, show the feelings, right? Not exactly. Maass says showing too much emotion, or “plain emotion” as he calls it, “can be as dull as description. Just because the character is feeling something doesn’t mean we will feel anything other than indifferent.” How can we engage the reader then? Throw in something from the five senses. A smell that reminds the character of something from the past, positive or negative, brings just a little bit of tension by evoking emotion in the character.
Another technique authors use to create tension is foreshadowing, but it can be tricky. “Is there a way to cast a shadow without being ridiculously obvious?” pg. 222 Taking an historical event from a character’s POV is one way to provide that tension. Or, take a large event in in your plot and tell how your POV character feels about it. I did this in “Meghan’s Choice.” My event is the tornado, and for my hero, Duncan the cowboy wakes up that morning, and he’s nervous. He prays about what he feels in his spirit, but he still feels something’s up. He’s not sure what he’s feeling, even though he’s trying to analyze it.
“A verse came to mind from Proverbs ten, verse twenty-five. “When the whirlwind passes by, the wicked are no more. But the righteous have an everlasting foundation.” He believed that meant no serious harm would befall those he prayed for.
He prayed as fervently as he could, returning to the bunkhouse to awaken the other hands. Protect us Lord. Then, he heard a voice inside his spirit. I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
He whispered. “Yes, Lord. Thank You.” His feeling of anxiety did not lessen, however. He’d felt warnings before. He always prayed through them. Sometimes he felt peace, at other times, strength. Today, it was strength. He took that to mean that no matter what happened today, God would be with him. But he wasn’t sure if that meant he’d come to no harm. These feelings were nebulous, and he wasn’t sure if it was warning he was feeling, or fear. Were they the same? He wasn’t sure about that, either.”
Did you feel the war inside him? He wants to be strong, he feels strength coming to him, but he’s still not sure if he’s being warned or if he’s afraid. He’s struggling to discern the difference.
Maass says this on pg. 223: “Foreshadowing, I believe is most effective not when it thunders at us but when it stirs within the story’s characters a shift of emotion. The signs in the sky are only smoke really, unless they make a subtle contrast with characters’ feelings.”
“Tension can be made out of nothing at all; or at least, that’s how it can appear. In reality it is feelings, specifically feelings in conflict with each other, that fill up an otherwise dead span of story and bring it alive.” Pg. 224-225.
Exercise for creating Tension from Nothing
Step 1: Find a moment when nothing is happening.
Step 2: Identify the POV character. Write down their feelings and emotions, then write the opposite feeling/emotion.
Step 3: Note three or more details of the time and place of this dead moment. What objects are around? What’s the lighting? What’s the mood in the air? How is time moving, what pace?
Step 4: What is the POV character’s state of being at the moment.
Step 5: Create a passage in which this moment of action is filled with everything you created in the steps above, especially the contrasting emotions.
“Discussion: Some experience is intangible, yet that which is not outwardly active can still be dynamic. Every minute has a mood. Every moment has meaning. Mood is built from environmental details, and meaning proceeds from emotions. Tension springs from the weaving of these elements into a passage that precisely captures small visual details and surgically dissects the enormous feelings that fill a silence.” Click to Tweet
What about your writing? Is there tension in every scene? I’m learning. If not, do you know, from the past few lessons, how to insert tension into everything you write? Leave a comment and let me know.